Thursday, 18 April 2019

Natives – Race and Class in the ruins of Empire, by Akala

Shortlisted for The Jhalak Prize
The Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour, is an annual literary prize awarded to British or British-resident writers. It is the first and only literary prize in the UK to only accept entries by writers of colour.

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“When I say I could have been a statistic – another working-class black man dead or in prison ... people that grew up like us know just how real this statement is, how easily the scales could have been tipped.”


As a white woman on the upper end of middle age, it’s not surprising that I know Akala not from his music, but from his articles and speeches. If I come across a link to one of them on Twitter, I always click on it, knowing that what I will hear / read will be insightful, challenging, thought-provoking and scholarly. This book is no exception.

If David Olusoga’s Black and British was a history of Black people in Britain, Natives takes aspects of modern British society and traces their roots back into Britain’s imperial past – a past which present-day citizens have been taught to see only through blinkers and some heavily rose-tinted spectacles.

Akala was born in 1981, the year that began with the New Cross Fire, in which 13 black children died in what was widely believed at the time to have been an arson attack. The utter indifference of media and the rest of society to their fate led directly to a march on parliament by twenty thousand black people. Together with police’s brutal application of the so-called sus laws in areas like Brixton, it was also one of the triggers for the series of riots that erupted across Britain that spring and summer.

Such outward manifestations of racism may have been less in evidence in the intervening years, but that does not mean that racism has gone away. Akala forensically examines Britain’s role in the slave trade (conveniently forgotten in our haste to pat ourselves on our backs for our part in ending it). It looks at the history of scientific racism and the hypersexualisation of black men in the imaginations of white people. And it connects those things to clearly and directly to language and attitudes prevalent today.

Scholarly as it is, this is also a personal book. Like Afua Hirsch, Akala is mixed race. His mother is white British (half Scottish, half English), and his father is from Jamaica. He grew up in Archway, on the borders between white, leafy, privileged Highgate and the much poorer, rougher area of Tottenham. The year he was twelve, he was stopped and searched by the police for the first time. It was also the first time he witnessed someone more or less of his own age attacked with a meat cleaver.

The picture Akala paints of his childhood – his adolescence in particular – is profoundly shocking to someone who has lived her life in a far more sheltered corner of England. Yet Akala swiftly demolishes the myth of ‘black on black violence,’ showing a correlation between youth violence and poverty, deprivation and lack of expectation that goes back in time hundreds of years and spreads geographically to cities where few Black people live. He shows how class is systematically used to trap white and black people alike – but how the few that break free may escape class, but that race follows them wherever they go.

At the end of the book, he looks forward into the coming century, at the growing economic power of countries outside the Anglo-America/European sphere, and wonders how and if white people will adjust to no long being the dominant world group.

“The shape of the world children born now will inhabit will be determined now just by politicians and billionaires, but by millions of supposedly ordinary people like you and me, who choose whether or not to engage with difficult issues, to try and grasp history, to find their place in it, and who choose whether to act or do nothing when faced with the mundane and mammoth conflicts of everyday life.”

A book that will challenge your world view – particularly those of us who have, however unwittingly, inherited the benefits and privileges of our imperialist forebears.

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2019 JHALAK PRIZE.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge; Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch

Avoid If You Dislike: Shattering the myths of British imperialism

Perfect Accompaniment: A willingness to address the difficult questions

Genre: Non Fiction

Available on Amazon


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